Alger Hiss rides again.

Scrutinizing culture.
July 16 2007 7:20 AM

Alger Hiss Rides Again

Spy case erupts; defenders turn to Nixonian tactics.

(Continued from Page 2)

The "Gorsky cable" was sent by a Soviet attaché/spy in Washington, D.C., to someone in Moscow. It contains an "important clue," they say: Gorsky states that as of March 5, 1945, when the cable was sent, "Ales" had not come back from Mexico City.

And yet Bird and Chervonnaya introduce persuasive evidence that Hiss arrived back from Mexico City on February 22 and was in Washington to make a radio appearance on Friday, March 3, and speak at a press conference on Sunday the 5th, appearances that were both reported in the press at the time.

This, Bird and Chervonnaya declare, is incontrovertible evidence that "Ales" was not Hiss because Hiss had come back from Mexico and "Ales" had not. The problem is that while Hiss' presence in D.C. is incontrovertible, they also have to prove that Gorsky knew Hiss was back.

But the way they deal with this task raises questions about the standards of evidence Bird and Chervonnaya call into question in other historians' work.

Because their conclusion—that Gorsky knew Hiss was back—is based not even on circumstantial evidence but on suppositional evidence. Gorsky would have known Hiss was back, they say, because, "If Gorsky … was doing his job, either he or his assistants were listening to the radio and reading the Times or the Star." (Where Hiss' radio and press conference appearances were reported.)          

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Note that line,"If Gorsky … was doing his job." Maybe he was. Or maybe, on the other hand, he was out of town. Maybe he and his colleagues were all off on a dirty weekend on the Eastern Shore when Hiss was on the radio and in the paper. Perhaps Hiss had his own reasons for not reporting in to Gorsky when he got back to D.C., reasons of security, for instance.

Instead, we get more suppositions. Gorsky, who—the authors take pains to note—was a press specialist, "would have to have been incompetent not to know that Hiss had returned from Mexico City." 

And as we know, bureaucrats are never incompetent.

I wouldn't say that their "firm alibi" for Hiss is as firm as they proclaim it to be.

Instead of the high standards of evidence Bird and Chervonnaya call for, with their big scoop, their Gorsky cable bombshell, we get Gorsky woulda/coulda/shoulda known Hiss' whereabouts. (Hiss scholars John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have noticed this problem, and Sam Tanenhaus noted it in a recent New Republicarticle on Chambers.)

But it gets worse. Bird and Chervonnaya should have been content with raising, as they do, a legitimate question about the Hiss/"Ales" identification. But they also insist on "proving" who the real "Ales" was.

They narrow their "Ales" suspects to one man, a State Department functionary named Wilder Foote. And here they rely way too much on guilt by association. They do to Wilder Foote what they believe McCarthyites did to Hiss.

There are problems with both their facts and the methods they use to do this. In the print edition of their American Scholar essay, they claim that Foote was in the "Bolshoi [Theater] central box" on a night when, according to the VENONA cables, "Ales" was congratulated and thanked for his spy work by a Soviet Military Intelligence big shot also seated in that box.

But in the expanded Web-only version, Bird and Chervonnaya include Wilder Foote's denial that he was in the central box in the Boshoi with all the nobs. Foote has claimed that he was, rather, seated in the orchestra of the ballet, not the central box. They never present a convincing reason why their claim should override Foote's.

But having convinced themselves Foote was in the right place at the right time, in the Bolshoi box, they proceed to try to convince us that he was a "Soviet asset." And it turns out they have little hard evidence for this and instead they present evidence that Foote's associations were somehow suspect.

They begin by citing FBI investigations of those associations: "Both the FBI and the CSC [Civil Service Commission] investigations [of Foote] revolved around Wilder Foote's various associations." (Despite being investigated, as was just about everyone in the State Department during the McCarthy period, Foote was never charged with anything.)

Citing the FBI's suspicions amounts to an insinuation that where there's smoke, there's fire. Bird and Chervonnaya do evince an awareness of the tainted history of such "guilt-by-association" investigations: "This can be shaky ground, of course," they write, "but [the study of associations] can suggest how a particular person might have been introduced to certain ideas or activities." Spoken as if they were defending the key method of McCarthyism!

They go on: "Critics may charge that we are somehow convicting Foote with the same 'guilt-by-association' tactics used throughout the McCarthy era."

Well, yes. That's exactly what they're doing. And they go on doing it. They cite—as if it had any relevance—Foote's association with the anti-Nazi, pro-intervention, prewar Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies chaired by William Allen White *, a mainstream liberal group. Talk about "marginalizing" liberals. This is a real stretch that recalls the McCarthyite term for communists: "premature anti-Fascists." [Update, July 19th: Writer Ron Radosh points out that "premature anti-fascist" is not, as is often thought, a McCarthyite term. It has been traced to U.S. communist veterans of the Spanish Civil War who, Radosh contends, wanted to emphasize their anti-fascism in light of the shameful Hitler-Stalin pact.]

Bird and Chervonnaya also find that Foote had "several longstanding friendships" with leftists, including two friends described by the Soviets as "highly left-wing," although there is no evidence that these friends were involved in espionage. Guilt by friendship!

They even use the rhetoric used by both communist and fascist regimes to brand their internal enemies: "Foote was a cosmopolitan," they say, and "an intellectual, and an internationalist." Case closed!

Worst of all, they quote Wilder Foote's son (who categorically denies their indictment of his father): "My father was on McCarthy's 'list' but was never called to testify."

The ultimate irony. In trying to exonerate Hiss, they end up (partially, at least) exonerating McCarthy's notorious little list of security risks. Essentially, they're saying that one of the alleged communists on McCarthy's list really was a secret Soviet asset.

At the end of their article, almost as if they've suddenly realized how far they've gone in their desperation to exonerate Hiss, Bird and Chervonnaya try to make nice to Wilder Foote and his son for the injury they're doing Foote and his family by smearing him as a previously undiscovered traitor.

They try transparently (and rather pathetically) to have it both ways: to say Foote was a spy, but a really nice guy. Foote, they say, "clearly believed himself to be a man of impeccable integrity, an idealist who dedicated most of his career as an international civil servant to building up the United Nations as a bulwark of world peace. If he was also a gentleman spy, he was excellent at his craft."

The obvious question staring out from that quote is this: Why can't they accept that this might be the truth about Hiss? Why not give him praise he might well appreciate rather than label another man as a spy in order to "exonerate" Hiss of something that—according to my conjecture—he may have been proud of?

In the end, they have the worst of both worlds. Without exonerating Hiss (since there's a great deal of evidence beyond the "Ales" identification against Hiss, more than "association"), they've raised the possibility that there were two spies rather than none. They've made Joe McCarthy look good, or anyway, better. Perhaps new evidence will finally turn up from Soviet archives to vindicate one side or another in this endless embittered battle. One can't rule out the possibility that Bird and Chervonnaya are right, but they haven't proven it here.

Meanwhile, it begins to look like the spell of the Hiss case can cloud the minds of its acolytes. The American Scholar piece becomes an instance of what it purports to warn against: looking at the evidence in intelligence cases through the lens of ideological predisposition.

Such thinking is, alas, not confined to the Hiss case. It's a lesson that intelligence agencies—and scholars—haven't learned if one looks at the way the evidence on WMDs was processed through an ideological lens with the evidence judged by whether it fits the desired conclusion. 

Correction, July 17, 2007: The article originally misspelled the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, July 17, 2007: This article originally misspelled the middle name of William Allen White. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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